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How to Sharpen Your Sales Message with Do-it-Yourself Focus Groups - Small Business Power Tools

You've probably heard of focus groups. It's a tool that the big guys use to quickly test a new product or service or to get fast feedback from potential customers. Focus groups do not provide real, actionable information but are great for what I call "clue hunting." For example, I once sat through a series of focus groups on a new camera-related product. After three focus groups, we were able to pretty well conclude there wouldn't be much of a market for this particular product, and the idea was dropped. The three focus groups probably cost this advertiser around $5000 vs. the hundreds of thousands of dollars that would have been wasted had they put the product into manufacturing.

While you may not want to hire a full-fledged market research company to conduct a focus group for you, there is nothing to prevent you from doing your own informal focus group or groups.

How should you use a focus group?

I like to test new product ideas in focus groups (see paragraph #1, above) or to solicit ideas for new products or services. For example, suppose your company manufactures a line of pet supplies ? leashes, dog dishes, chew toys and the like. I think you could easily pull together a group of six or eight dog owners to brainstorm ideas for new pet products. A good place to start is by asking, "What do you need for your dog that you can't find at the local pet store?"

Another way to approach this is get together a group of dog or cat owners, explain the idea or service you've come up with, and see how they react to it. You do have to be careful when you ask friends, what they think of your idea because friends don't want to have to look you in the face and tell you that this brilliant idea of yours if just plain awful.

If you don't mind being a little aggressive, you can hang out around stores that cater to the people whose opinions you would like and ask them if they would be willing to participate in a focus group. I've found that you usually need to offer some reward like $25 or coupons for a free lunch or dinner. But if you ask nicely, and make sure people understand you're not trying to see them something, you might be surprised at how many people will say "yes." Plus, these people are not your friends, so they may give you better, more honest answers.

Where to hold your focus group? If you're doing a focus group with friends or neighbors, you can probably do it around your kitchen table. If you;re doing it with strangers and have a conference room in your business that will hold seven to nine people comfortably, have a focus group there. Or you should be able to rent a small conference room in a hotel or motel at reasonable cost. Plan on having soft drinks for your attendees and maybe some munchies. I like to run focus group in the evening, as it can be hard to get people to come during the day.

Naturally, your focus group should consist of the people you feel are most likely to be customers for your product or service.

How do you run a focus group? Start by asking everyone to tell a little about themselves ? to break the ice. Next, you might ask the group to talk about some of their problems or issues ? as they relate to your products or services. Take the example of the working moms. Once they've introduced themselves, ask a question like "you're busy, probably stressed out, working hard ? what bothers you the most about being a working mom?" You just might get some ideas for future products.

Be sure to ask open-ended questions like the "what bothers you the most?" "How do you feel about that?" Don't ask questions that can be answered with a yes or no. This can be the death knell of a focus group.

If you're unlucky, you will get one person who wants to dominate the conversation. This is the guy or gal who has all the answers and doesn't care about other people's opinions. If you get one of these in a focus group, you just have to take control, "Bob, we really value your opinion, but I'd like to hear from some other members of the group."

When you get around to introducing the product or service on which you want the group's feedback, be low key. You might not even want to say that it's something you're thinking of marketing. Instead, talk in general terms such as "I've been sitting here listening to you all and it seems to me that a product you could use would be a (whatever)." Then listen to their responses. Try to keep the conversation going with sentences like, "can you tell me more?" "What made you think of that?" "Is there anything about this idea that could be changed that would make it more useful?" "Are there any products like this on the market?" What do you think of them?"

And, finally, I always like "what do you think a product like this should cost?" This is sort of where the rubber meets the road, If your group assigns a really low cost to your product or service idea, this means they really don't have much interest in it ? no matter what they have been saying.

Don't get defensive or try to sell your idea. You might think you have just the most brilliant product idea since the iPod, but if your group thinks the idea is really bad, don't argue with them. Learn a lesson about your product and move on.

The first time you try to do a focus group, you may feel awkward and uncomfortable. But try a couple and it should become easier than falling of a log. Plus, it's a cheap way to get information that could help you earn thousands of dollars in new sales.

Article by Douglas Hanna. Douglas is a retired advertising and marketing executive and long-time Denver resident. He is the webmaster of http://www.all-in-one-info.com, a free resource for information on a variety of subjects. Please visit his site to subscribe to his free newsletter, "Tips & Tricks to Save Money & Live Better."

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